(Washington) – A tumultuous week culminating in a Presidential Debate has shaken the news cycle as if it were a washing machine going through it various cycles. The week began precipitously with the announcement by the Treasure Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernake the financial services industry (Wall Street) was in worst shape and federal intervention was necessary.
Talk about changing the subject… “We need 700 billion dollars to stabilize Wall Street,” according to Secretary Paulson. Is our world falling apart or is it being undone and we just don’t know it? The first of the testimonies by Paulson and Bernake comes before a Senate Banking committee and it’s clear they don’t have their act together and are flying by the seat of their pants. Tuesday the chorus of those pooh-poohing the plan is bi-partisan. The proposal in its original form is likely to die if there aren’t negotiations.
Fast forward to Wednesday morning, Senator Barack Obama calls Senator John McCain. At the heart of the voice mail is a conversation about issuing a joint statement regarding the outline of a federal bailout plan which will protect “Main Street” rather than Wall Street. McCain receives the message and orders his surrogates to work on the language. Understand polls show Arizona is losing the battle on the economy.
I’m in Washington Wednesday afternoon for the Congressional Black Caucus. I’ve just picked up my credentials and talk with Deidre Childress, of the Philadelphia Weekend Magazine. She tells me Senator John McCain has decided he will stop campaigning, return to Washington, will skip Friday’s debate at the University of Mississippi and suggests the president convene all parties including the two contenders for president at the White House to hammer out a deal.
The conversation has changed in the unending 24 hour news cycle. The response from Obama, who is in Florida preparing for the debate, is he’s still going to Mississippi and “a president needs to be able to multi-task.” The pundits are in total spin mode, but a majority of those who cover campaign see this as a political ploy. Democratic leaders on in the house and senate concur, “McCain returning to Washington will do little to help the process,” according to Senator Harry Reid.
Initially, Republicans are caught in a quandary because it’s the “Presidents Men” who are pitching the plan. But this plan has the smell of day old fish. Meanwhile, poll numbers show the President’s approval ratings are 16 percent. There are rumbles from house Republicans about the scope of the deal and whether the government should be helping those business interests. Senator Richard Shelby from Alabama expresses his frustrations late Wednesday night. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders with some senate Republicans begin to shape a deal with several key issues. There will be oversight, there will be limits on executive compensation, and the government will determine which assets will be taken over. The president holds a prime address to tell the public about the problem and says he wants congressional leaders and the presidential candidate at the White House to discuss the problem. Wow, was he trying to help McCain? Obama says he’ll attend.
Thursday, the buzz is about a deal which Congressman Barney Frank says adheres to certain principles. At the CBC most attendees are a buzz about Obama being in town. There is a notable absence of Congressional members who are monitoring the situation hour by hour. The most notable activity is huddle over blackberry or eyes glued to plasma. Remember all of this is going over drinks and grub.
I stop in at Congressman Jim Clyburns reception and run into Mark Whitaker, the new NBC Bureau Chief. Between our conversations he’s getting constant buzz from his blackberry. “We don’t have a deal and things are unraveling,” he says.
I see Congressman Robert Scott of Virginia. I ask him about “the Old Dominion” which is seen as a toss-up state. “Barack’s going to win Virginia,” he says self assured. Obama has made several stops in the state which hasn’t gone Democratic since 1968. Trends however, show the state is changing from being this hotbed for conservatives to a more nuanced with its politics. This change is evident by northern Virginia with it high tech corridor and more educated population. “He will use the same strategy as Governor Tim Kane,” says Scott. Statewide you can win if you pull together northern Virginia, Tidewater and Southwest Virginia. It’s played itself out several times going back to Governor Doug Wilder who shocked the establishment with his win. The last hold outs for tried and true Republicanism are in the outer suburbs of Richmond and Shenandoah Valley. I press Scott for what percentage voter is needed for a win for Obama. “Maybe 80 percent,” I look at him with amazement. This is unrealistic in my opinion but this race has confounded me and those who follow it.
The White House Meeting
I get home to hear the deal has fallen apart. Word is there were some testy words at the White House. Republican Minority Leader Represenative John Boehner says there is uneasy with his house colleagues. McCain demands the House Republicans be heard on the bailout, but he has no constructive ideas. The democrats look as though they are carrying the president’s water and they are pissed. Obama’s must be thinking “I came back for this?” He stays in DC overnight but heads to Florida and then on to Mississippi. The Democratic Nominee has no idea if he’ll be at the debate alone or will be joined by McCain.
The analogy here, McCain has played a poker hand with a bluff. The dealer is asking him to turn over his cards. The people who are watching know this is the case and can’t believe he won’t go to the debate.
Will He or Won’t He?
All eyes on me, as McCain make several rounds on Capitol Hill. Chased by cameras for most of the morning he decides to go to Mississippi. There will be little prep but its clear McCain has dominated the news cycle going into the debate. Can he live up to the hype? Will Obama be more professorial than genuine? It’s the equivalent of heavy-weight battle with the “tail of the tape” strung out over primaries and campaign appearances.
The Medium is the Message
Unlike most people I initially experienced the debate via radio. Both men sounded confident with few memorable one-liners which the press holds on to and becomes the historically context for the election.
Unlike most of you Jim Lehrer of PBS gave explicit instructions to the audience. NO cell phones, no applauding, and no hoots or howls (“If hear any of this I’m taking it away from your candidate.”). Lehrer made a point, which I think the TV audience could have been prepared for, the idea to engage the candidates in a back and forth exchange where they could question each other and challenge premises.
This line of engagement was illustrated as the moderator asked the candidates; Lehrer asks, “As president, as a result of whatever financial rescue plan comes about and the billion, $700 billion, whatever it is it's going to cost, what are you going to have to give up, in terms of the priorities that you would bring as president of the United States, as a result of having to pay for the financial rescue plan?"
OBAMA: Well, there are a range of things that are probably going to have to be delayed. We don't yet know what our tax revenues are going to be. The economy is slowing down, so it's hard to anticipate right now what the budget is going to look like next year.
But there's no doubt that we're not going to be able to do everything that I think needs to be done. There are some things that I think have to be done...
MCCAIN: Look, we, no matter what, we've got to cut spending. We have -- as I said, we've let government get completely out of control. The point is, we need to examine every agency of government…by the way, I'd eliminate ethanol subsidies. I oppose ethanol subsidies.
I think that we have to return -- particularly in defense spending, which is the largest part of our appropriations -- we have to do away with cost-plus contracts. We now have defense systems that the costs are completely out of control.
LEHRER: But if I hear the two of you correctly neither one of you is suggesting any major changes in what you want to do as president as a result of the financial bailout? Is that what you're saying?
OBAMA: No. As I said before, Jim, there are going to be things that end up having to be
LEHRER: Like what?
OBAMA: ... deferred and delayed. Well, look, I want to make sure that we are investing in energy in order to free ourselves from the dependence on foreign oil. That is a big project. That is a multi-year project. (Obama goes into Medicare, and education spending, he’s not answering the question.)
LEHRER: What I'm trying to get at this is this. Excuse me if I may, senator. Trying to get at that you all -- one of you is going to be the president of the United States come January. At the -- in the middle of a huge financial crisis that is yet to be resolved. And what I'm trying to get at is how this is going to affect you not in very specific -- small ways but in major ways and the approach to take as to the presidency.
MCCAIN: How about a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs.
LEHRER: Spending freeze?
MCCAIN: I think we ought to seriously consider with the exceptions the caring of veterans national defense and several other vital issues.
This exchange proved there are no simple answers and with this evolving situation regarding Wall Street no one knows what will happen next.
This debate was supposed to be about foreign policy. When it finally got to this issue Iraq and Afghanistan dominated. These two men are of two minds. McCain talks about how he supported the surge before it was popular. The surge by all measurements has stopped uncontrolled violence but doesn’t seem to get us out of the country faster.
Obama continues to pound on how this war is wrong and he stated his opposition early on. He uses the Bush administrations strategy as failed policy and pushes the idea McCain as president would continue this policy.
Meeting with foreign leaders also caused some heated moments with the evocation of famed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. I’m guessing for the younger audience they were probably wondering, “Who’s this old dude they keep talking about.”
Hearing this debate on radio gave me the impression McCain won. I suggest this because his answers were crisp simplistic. Obama sounded as like he was giving a lecture. The uninterrupted back and forth was refreshing without the drama. There was no “smoking gun.” The main theme was supposed to be about foreign policy and I tell you they just skimmed the surface. There was little talk about: Asia and its growing domination economically, the third world was dismissed, and Europe and its integration into NATO were only discussed in the context of invasion of Georgia Soviet Republic all these subjects needed dialogue.
I decided to see the entire debate on TV to gauge how it may have differed. I have come to this conclusion, Obama won it on TV. So why did the two debates come up seemingly different analysts? The visual of Obama and McCain together gave the underdog (Obama) stature. He looked presidential and came across as reasoned. The domination of economic issues plays into the Illinois Senators strengths.
McCain’s continued harping on issues he has said on the campaign trail didn’t play well to the cameras. Remember this debate was not for people in the room but rather those who are undecided and the growing legions of independent voters. These two groups have heard these tried and true Republican statements; “the market will correct itself; less regulation, get the government out of the way, and lowering the tax burden will get us out of this.”
Each of these men will retool for the next debate. Look for McCain to change the subject…soon. Obama’s narrow lead is a problem, “Bradley/Wilder Effect.” White voters say one thing to pollsters and do something different in the booth. The ad wars will also heat up.
The Vice Presidential debate will also draw high viewing numbers. Palen has been cramming for this event. Will it take away her authenticity? Will Biden attack? Will Gwen Ifill be able to control the setting? Get your popcorn ready for this one.